Engine 3751: Iron Curtain

This wall of metal, a conglomeration of cast iron and machined parts originating from 1927 is the side view from Engine 3751. A 4–8–4 Santa Fe, commonly referred to as simply 4–8–4. She was built in; 1927 by Baldwin, with 80´ wheels, is over 108 feet long and the locomotive alone weighs 478,000 lbs. With the engine and tender together she is approaching almost a million pounds.


It is true what I have heard for years about steam trains. When the boilers are fired up and the locomotive is sitting, ready to roll, it is indeed as close to a living thing as a machine can get. While preparing to do our two shots, the locomotive still charged with pressure from a previous journey three days earlier, the train seems alive, almost agitated, as it sits and "breathes," huffing and puffing. Even sitting static the locomotive resonated with the sounds from dozens of pumps. Forcing hot steam, water, fuel, oil and grease to various parts of the train. Often, and at random intervals, other valves would open and close, snapping and popping to purge hot steam pressure built up from different locations all around the engine. While not an engineer myself, I could easily imagine that to the men who work so lovingly on this piece of "living history" these sounds from a fully charged and ready to run vintage steam engine must be akin to a symphony. It is truly impressive. If the shot we did together, were to capture even a fraction of that audible richness, to hint at all that lies under the skin, that would be for me a success!


This photo you´re looking at was a detail from the first locomotive that was captured a couple days earlier. It is indeed a completely separate photo, as I wanted to create an image that highlighted the mechanical intricacies of these large old steam locomotives, the people who used to operate them, and those that operate them to this day. The man pictured is Bob Kittel, president of San Bernardino Railroad Historical Society. As I understand it, Bob is pretty much the "Go–To" guy when it comes to steam locomotives.


We had to shoot this within 2 days after the first steam train photo session since there was only steam in the boilers for a short period of time. I think it works well considering I am not using flash (storbe) to freeze the steam – very tricky. Without getting too technical for all you non–photographers, I did not want to mix my regular tungsten lighting (hot lights or still lights) with portable strobe lights (flash) on a location shoot. With strobes, I would have been able to freeze people and steam much better than what I am doing now, but the difficulty of working with different equipment and techniques on the location would be too much for me to handle I think.


Using tungsten (hot lights) lighting to "paint" with light, I am really trying to capture the flavor of the object, not just capture a likeness of it, or maybe I´m trying to create an overly exaggerated exact likeness of the locomotive, I don´t know. That is for art critics to figure out later, all I can do is take the picture. The steam being a bit wispy and the mood light being overly painterly I think only adds to the shot.


If you look carefully you can see that there is a ridiculous amount of detail built into the lighting of the structures in the engine. I was literally crawling around the engine with a hand held flashlight to get at all the little details and "wrap" my light around all of them - and there are a LOT of them too. It is my intention that the casual observer will do a "double take" looking at this shot to try and understand what is happening. Remember that this is only a small portion of the whole locomotive. At over 108 feet long, we are only seeing about one quarter of the whole locomative. It was not by accident that the left and right sides of the frame are bright and full of detail. I wanted the viewer (you) to get maybe a sense that the train continues for some distance out of the frame on both sides.


Even after all these years since this engine was built, I am amazed that people could construct such a massive and precise mechanical machine. That it was built so many years ago is really impressive. That it is operational to this day because of the combined efforts of volunteers is more impressive still. - Humans!


Eric Curry